Co-creating Latin Online
Keeping Student Excitement, Interest, and Participation at the Core of Distance Latin Instruction
[This article about co-creation was co-written by myself and my colleague, Ashley Brewer, who is Senior Instructor in Latin and Ancient Mediterranean Cultures at the Culver Academies.]
One of the joys of communicative Latin instruction is building with your Latin students.
Through simple activities like speaking and listening, question and answer, call and response, and storytelling, Latin students become partners in the Classics classroom.
The teacher lays the foundation, and the students build up the edifice. They make evident what they care about; what moves them; what they’d like to know more about or what in a story they’d like to amplify, modify, or eliminate. For the students, providing output in Latin is low-risk due to the levity of the environment and understood lack of penalty for “mistakes” throughout the learning process. For the teacher, it is high-reward to see the students freely and joyfully engaging with the language in a way that is conducive to on-the-spot feedback which is then freely and non-judgmentally provided for students. There is a symbiotic relationship of trust between teacher and students where their mistakes are recognized as valuable parts of their individualized acquisition.
In pedagogy lingo, this practice is often called “co-creation.” Students and teachers co-create when they build the course content, goals, lessons, and activities together. For those who’ve tried it, the benefits are numerous. Students are excited, engaged, learn freely and briskly, and, most of all, approach ideas, the instructor, and each other joyfully. Students are led by their creativity, which too often doesn’t play a big enough role in a high school classroom. They engage through communicating about things that are important to them and that they wish to incorporate into class. They want to share with their classmates. When co-building, students have agency in their learning, which can also be a new, empowering feeling.
The extreme challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic risk putting the goal of student-teacher co-creation to the side, as more teachers and students focus on the “basics.” Too often, this can mean an excessive focus on the “content” at the expense of the experiences and processes that accompany active learning.
In this piece, we, two communicative Latin teachers, instead show that co-creation — in effect, learning-centered play between teacher and students — ought to remain centrally in place in online, synchronous and asynchronous environments in order to preserve student-teacher connection, morale, and rapport, and to encourage progress toward active Latin proficiency.
We detail a few different activities we ran this spring via Zoom and our online learning management system (Schoology), which helped us to approximate the co-created environments we cultivated on campus.
Evan’s Experience: Zoom Sciptura Communis
[By Evan Dutmer] This spring I adapted my scriptura communis (team-write) activity into Zoom with the Zoom whiteboard feature. This allowed all my students to take part in crafting simple stories, together, simultaneously.
I’d give students a few starting details — a few animals, a place, maybe an action (in Latin)— and they’d fill in the rest of the story with their already existing vocabulary and their own imagination. I served in a purely advisory role — I’d change a confusing form here or there or encourage a student who was building their confidence — it was the students who crafted these stories and expanded them into prolonged narratives.
Here’s a few screenshots from these fun, content-rich, Latin-centric activities (these are examples from Latin 1 students):
Throughout these activities, students maintain active roles in the creation of the class itself. They are not simply taught to, but rather become the creators of new, vibrant, unexpected landscapes in the Latin language, drawing from their own perspectives, desires, experiences, and existing knowledge.
As is evident from the examples above, this is student Latin, and decidedly, unabashedly, authentically “imperfect.” My role in guiding these activities is not punitive. Rather, decidedly affirmative. I celebrate the amazing, spontaneous creations of my students, gesturing and encouraging the young Latin learner toward more standard Latin (but certainly not shaming them for producing a learner’s Latin!). (For more on this, see my piece on Mr. John Roos’s philosophy of teaching, and the deep importance of affirmation for young minds.)
In addition to these open-ended student-generated novice Latin compositions, I also engaged my students online with the creation of a Gladiatores magazine which both drew on their interest (students opted for a gladiator unit out of a list of competitors) and which exposed my students to graded Latin from classical authors.
As, in this fictional Gladiatores magazine, I included “opinion columns” from famous advocates and opponents of the munera in adapted Classical Latin. In the example you’ll see below, I included selections from Seneca’s critical appraisal of the games in his seventh letter in the Epistulae Morales. In this way I was able to both honor student interest while introducing my students to period-appropriate Roman culture and sheltered, meaning-focused, classically-inspired Latin. In effect, I co-built course direction with my students in the creation of Gladiatores, but I then provided course content.
Take a look at what this fictional online magazine looked like:
This online magazine activity is an excellent way to engage students in Classical Latin and cultural themes in the Greek and Roman worlds. See what media engages them, and how they respond best to the written word (first try in English, if you need to!). Then meet them there!
Ashley’s Experience: Student-Centered Narrative
[By Ashley Brewer] My original aim for Latin 3 had been to focus on Latin poetry. We had discussed content and topic in Latin while analyzing and writing out the meter using English. The amount of input which my students had received both from me and each other on a daily basis had facilitated a wide vocabulary with which they could readily conduct conversation.
But then, we abruptly had to switch gears. Students were thrown into the distance learning experience without asking for or expecting it in any way, as was I.
I had to face the fact that I was not equipped to continue with Latin poetry, but, more importantly, neither were my students. I told them as we began our first Zoom session: “If this was a fitness goal, this period of time is about maintaining — I do not want you all to focus on making any gains right now.”
I set up a recurring weekly structure whereby every Monday, a main reading and ancillary activities would be posted then they had the week to complete the work. They could check in with me throughout the week via Zoom and/or email with questions.
Now, I tried to maintain some status quo by issuing classical myths as the weekly reading. However, I noticed a complete lack of student engagement during our synchronous time. Therefore, I decided to start writing a story about the students.
At first, I did not tell them that I was doing this — what became the first installment was a surprise to them and the reaction was very positive.
Although the proficiency level had not changed between the myths and this new story, the students were now more engaged because it was about THEM. They were the stars, they were the protagonists, they were the problem-solvers. Each week, the activities involved students making inferences regarding the story or why things in that week’s installment had happened the way that they had. I also used our small group discussion time to elicit their ideas about where the story should go next.
Through those discussions, I gathered more and more information about each of my students. I knew them to be creative and interactive, but I witnessed much more creativity from some of those students who’d remained rather quiet or unassuming in class. It was also interesting to compare my one-on-one interactions with students to how those same students acted in front of their peers. For example, I had one student who, in front of his peers, downplayed his Latin skills and how much he cared about his performance in class. However, in our one-on-one interviews and check-ins, he exhibited conscientiousness for his language study and definitely wanted to do a good job.
Ultimately, this storyline continued for the rest of the term and ended up having six parts. The students were actively engaged in co-creating the story arc and part of the excitement for them was the unpredictability of where their input would show up. As I was writing the story, I did have agency regarding the prevalence of certain students over the others, as there was no way for me to keep our story to a suitable length but also feature each of my students equally in each installment; those would have been many, many pages!
I used this opportunity to highlight the character strengths of the students who were not always as prominent in our in-person class. I used my students’ names so that there was no lack of envisioning their peers in these ridiculous situations. I heard these reactions first-hand as well in our weekly small group meetings, where I was also assessing their interpersonal and presentational speaking. In one instance, I asked them, “quis Magistram Brewer necavit?” and that student who had been the perpetrator had the chance to say, “oh! ego magistra necavi!” My students made jokes with each other about the story and their roles because there was no secret as to who had done what. They also suggested for their peers to fill other roles that they created as suggestions for where the story should go flew around in a flurry of Latin conversation.
These activities all featured our students as central players and creators of “content.” In this way, our online classes still became centers of student and teacher co-creation. Student interest and engagement increased drastically as we centered on these experiences. In effect, our students learned once we started to give them agency in the Latin language — even if through Zoom or other distance learning tools.
One of the best ways to democratize the Latin learning experience is just this sort of co-creation — that is, to give students real power in what, how, and why they learn the Latin language.
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Evan Dutmer is Instructor in Latin, Ancient Mediterranean Cultures, and Ethics at the Culver Academies. Ashley Brewer is Senior Instructor in Latin and Ancient Mediterranean Cultures at the same institution.
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